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Should all Christians engage in conflicts?

Ryszard Bobrowicz

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. These words of Jesus from the sermon on the Mount, as represented in Matthew 5:9, seem to suggest that Christians should try to keep peace and avoid conflict by any means possible. And yet, as Ellen Ott Marshall points in her Introduction to Christian Ethics: Conflict, Faith, and Human Life (2018), we should not discard conflict so quickly.

Rhodes skyline with minarets and a church tower. Image: MV

Conflict in the center of Christian ethics

“To be is to be in conflict” is the opening motto of her book. As she points out, conflict comes out of the Latin com fligere, meaning “to strike together.”Conflict therefore is a natural result of difference – when there is difference, there might arise tension and opposition, resulting in the striking of two opposing views.

Ott Marshall argues that some conflicts may bring destructive consequences, but one should always distinguish between conflicts and violence. By itself, conflict may not only be natural, but be a positive force for change. In situations of injustice, conflict which opposes that injustice, may not only be a good thing, but an imperative. That is why Marshall puts conflict in the center of Christian ethics. As she argues, conflicts are not a result of sin, but being changeable. Thus, she advocates neither for conflict avoidance, nor conflict management, nor even conflict resolution, but for conflict transformation, an approach where we do not view conflict as inherently wrong, but as a potential means of changing the structural causes at the bottom of that conflict.

Image: MV

Conflict, not violence

Ott Marshall wants to underline the dynamic, contextual, and relational character of conflict – as she points out, conflict should not be judged based on abstract principles, goals, or narratives, but always in the concrete particularity of the situation. The whole book then starts from the assumption that conflict is a natural part of being changeable, and, thus, if that is the case, how should we live a good live in the midst of it.

To answer this question, Ott Marshall engages with numerous styles of ethical thinking. For example, she approaches it deontologically, by engaging with the principle of imago Dei. Ott Marshall underlines the blasphemous character of the violation of human bodies as shaped in the image of God. As she argues, this raises a call for action for the persecuted and those on the margins. However, she argues, this truth is as revealing as it is challenging, as not only the victims share in the image of God, but perpetrators as well. Thus, imago Dei should not only shape our engagement with people on the margins, but also the form of the resistance. Ott Marshall points out that the shared character of imago Dei underlines the relational character of the engagement, something that shifts it from the impersonal objectivity of deontological principles towards an ongoing, personal formation.

Ott Marshall also advocates, among others, responsibilist ethics. In this approach, one should begin from establishing what is the situation, “what is going on” and then carefully consider potential chains of responses that could follow from that situation. This reflective moment may allow us to go beyond our gut reaction, which often involves fear. Instead, we might notice another person in their fullness, as a human being just like us, deserving of care, rather than fearful rejection. We may approach that person full of love.

Thus, Ott Marshall sees conflicts as sites of constructive potential, in which we can both change the world and ourselves. Thus, answering the titular question of this post, the task of Christians should be to reject violence, but not conflict. Instead, it should be to engage in conflicts reflecting the image of God in the world. As Ott Marshall points out in the conclusion to the book, we cannot do much about the fact that we live with conflict, but we can choose our response, loving one another in the midst of it.

June 17, 2021

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Fear of Syncretism as Racism?

Mika Vähäkangas, Lund University, University of the Western Cape, Helsinki University, Stellenbosch University

Worries and accusations of heresy – also in the form of mixing unwanted elements – in Christian faith are as old as Christianity itself. Theological disputes about the correct interpretation of the Gospel are the bread and butter of Christian discourses.

Motorcycle taxi in Delhi, India. Image: MV

Syncretism in theology and religious studies

Ross Kane has recently published Syncretism and Christian Tradition: Race and Revelation in the Study of Religious Mixture. As the subtitle reveals, the book is more about the study of syncretism than about syncretism as such. I expect that book to become standard reading in theology and religious studies on the concept of syncretism due to its compelling historical analysis of the development of ideas about syncretism.

In religious studies, that approach religions as if from outside, it is commonplace to understand that there is no pure religion. Every religion builds upon earlier religious traditions and is in a give and take relationship with other religions even today. Additionally, in real life, the borders between religions are not as clear-cut as in the books. In theology (that tends to view religions more from the inside perspective), however, one does not usually recognise the pervasive syncretism of religion and when recognising, one often does not draw the theological consequences. Syncretism is still today commonly used as a pejorative label for religious mixtures one does not approve of both in academic theology and in most religious communities. Thus, on one hand, the concept syncretism seems to cover too much and on the other hand, it is either ignored or used for ideological labelling.

Racist tendencies?

One of Kane’s the major findings is that the pejorative theological use of the term syncretism reveals racist tendencies in western theology. Western ethnocentrism and cultural imperialism are laid bare by the very fact that the doctrines and practices used as measuring sticks for sorting out the pure from the syncretic are western in nature. If the white man and his culture is the yardstick of true Christianity, that should cause us some major concern. Let me illustrate the issue through a couple of examples from different contexts:

Firstly, in Helsinki, Finland, a major passion play, Via Crucis, is organised on every Good Friday. In 2010, the main character, Jesus, was played by a Japanese woman. “Could one not have found a Finnish man instead?” was a common reaction. But is the point in incarnation that God became a white man? In addition to the manifest emphasis of masculinity and thinly hidden racial tone, there was also a hint of fear of syncretism as the actress came from a predominantly non-Christian country and came from a non-Christian background. A non-Christian actress playing Jesus may smuggle in non-Christian elements! But which approach should be counted as more doctrinally correct approach here – that God became a white man (considering even that Jesus of Nazareth was not white) or a human being?

Secondly, when I studied in Rome, Zambian Catholic Archbishop of Milingo (who had been called to Rome to be under stricter control was the most visible faith healer and exorcist in Italy. The media presented him as a sort of “witch-doctor bishop” (“vescovo stregone”) mixing African religions with Christianity. Syncretic, that is. However, eager Catholic-charismatic exorcists of European background were rather seen as overly biblical – trying to impose outdated biblical worldviews on modern Europe. Does this mean that they are not syncretic enough?

Archbishop Milingo celebrating a mass in Lusaka, Zambia by Plinko12 is licensed with CC BY 4.0. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0

Even language can cage us in an ethnocentric bubble

Thirdly, the first course of theology that I ever taught was the development Christian dogma – in Kiswahili. I was supposed to cover the doctrinal developments in Nicaea, Chalcedon etc. in a language that does not have verbs like “be”, “exist”, “subsist” or nouns related to them or even “person” or “nature”. The logic and structure of this very rich and expressive language is entirely different from Greek. It means that so-called classical theological categories are unintelligible unless expressed in a foreign idiom. Yet, there I was, supposed to teach the right doctrine to Lutheran parish workers who would, in turn, carry the message to the parishes. Is it really so that in order to become a true follower of Jesus, one should first learn how to think in a European manner? It seems obvious that European philosophical thought serves here as the measuring stick of right faith. To many Tanzanian Christians, doctrine is secondary to personal relation to God.

Building up a Bantu-languages based theological response to Christ would mean a total reformulation of Christian faith. In this process, ontological thinking and dogma-centeredness would need to give way to local ways of experiencing the Gospel. This would inevitably bring in the African traditions labelled as religion because language, culture and religion are inseparable. This is a scary scenario for the one dreading syncretism – and at the same time revealing Europa-centrism of much of Christianity.

Doctrine and the ways in which we define and defend the right doctrine are never a matter of simply abstract realities. Faith is lived out in real situations and real life does not consist of hermetically sealed compartments. There is always overlap and mixture. In religions, orthodoxies are old mixtures sanctioned by the leaders, whereas newer ones are either contextualisation or syncretism, depending on whether the leadership has accepted them or not. An intellectually honest Christianity cannot act as if the white man in church leadership, yesterday or today, represents the suprahistorical and universal religious truth.

June 2, 2021

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Losing my religion – not religious but spiritual in Europe

Mika Vähäkangas, Lund University, University of the Western Cape, Helsinki University, Stellenbosch University

Western Europe has been undergoing a tremendous religious change during the last two centuries. What was previously the hard fist of Christendom has become the least religious area in the world. The secularization thesis proposed that the rest of the world would follow because secularization (with its disenchantment) would be a part of the package of modernization (Max Weber). However, modernity seems to be able to enter a culture without secularization – e.g. surprisingly many leaders of third wave Pentecostal-Charismatic churches in West Africa have degrees (up to PhDs) in science.

In Europe, there are large numbers of people who (still) belong to the former state churches without a strong sense of sharing the faith of the church (belonging without believing) and who believe without belonging (Grace Davie). In the case of the first group, a rather typical position is that one points out that (s)he does not believe the way the church believes. Quite often, the faith that is being rejected is the one presented by the loud conservative wing of the churches. Yet, it usually does not mean that one would not have any kind of faith. In the second case, one points out that one has a faith but does not need any organized religion for that. It is then rather typical to stress that one is spiritual but not religious (Ina Rosen).


“Sunset Yoga” by Andrew Kalat is licensed with CC BY-ND 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/2.0/

You give love a bad name

In most of Europe, the churches have been a part of the state machinery for centuries, with tighter or looser connection to the powers that be. This Constantinian model was challenged after the Enlightenment. Much ecclesial thinking sees the Enlightenment as a nemesis. I am afraid that then one misses one essential dimension of Enlightenment that is in line with the Gospel – liberation. In France, where the Catholic Church was a part of the oppressive machinery, the Enlightenment led to aggressive opposition against religion (as a public phenomenon) whereas in the Nordic region where the state hijacked the Enlightenment, many leading Enlightenment thinkers were churchmen. The liberating outcome of the Enlightenment was, in practice, meagre but it strengthened the idea of liberation from the structures of oppression. Churches continued their role legitimating the status quo in the national(ist) states of the 1800s and onwards. After all this history, many in the Nordic churches’ leadership are wondering why there is resentment against the churches among the people! The majority churches have been, and in some ways still are, a part of the empire.

Another Enlightenment-related development is that when knowledge, and especially empirical knowledge, became the paramount of certainty (instead of divinely imparted revelation), this impacted western Christianity. On one hand, the Enlightenment developed the notion of religion (as a general category) which would deal with beliefs and values that could not be verified. On the other hand, religion should be a private matter due to its non-verifiable nature. Many churches perceived this as a major threat, accustomed that they were to construct the reality hand in hand with the political powers.

There were two Christian ways of combating the Enlightenment take on religion: fundamentalism and liberal theology. While they were theologically mortal enemies, they were siblings as bastards of Enlightenment. Both of them inherited the Enlightenment approach to knowledge and reality and their view of faith became predominantly akin to knowledge. Religion in Europe would then become not only a battlefield of identity politics (e.g. nationalism) but also of knowledge (e.g. evolution theory). European Christianity would then continue as a form of legitimation for both status quo and knowledge.

Across the universe

In Europe where Christianity was a part of the empire, Enlightenment developed the concept of religion while pushing Christian theologians into perceiving faith in increasingly knowledge-based terms. At the same time, the colonial empires expanded the European views on the variety of ways of believing around the world. The outcome was, however, not redefinition of religion following the new vistas but rather epistemological forcing of Asian spirituality in the Western religious mould in terms of clear-cut borders, doctrines, belonging etc. Thus, Hinduism was formed as the “religion” of those Indians who were not Muslims, Buddhists, Jains, or Sikhs. The multifaceted phenomenon of Buddhism was likewise forced into the western mould of religion.

Image: MV

When these Eastern (non-)religions started their expansion into the western sphere, they naturally challenged the Enlightenment notion of religion. The outcome was spirituality on one hand and secular-looking business (e.g. mindfulness and yoga) on the other hand. The notion of spirituality provided the Europeans’ uncomfortable relation to the status quo churches and fundamentalists with a vocabulary and an alternative. The quest for the transcendent had not disappeared from Europe but it had to find a new way and language that would now be spirituality. The Orient had challenged the foundations of Enlightenment religious-secular divide while keeping the spiritual a private matter. This can be considered liberation in the sense that privatised spirituality does not become a part of the power structures. At the same time, it lacks the transformative ability of more public forms of faith.

What if God was one of us?

Thus, the secularising shift from organised religion to spirituality in Europe has led to the demise of the church organisations. In many cases, the ecclesial response has been that of concentrating on defending the existing positions and concentrating on the organisational survival. Church organisation is implied as the precondition for the proclamation of the Gospel. This reaction has often only amplified the impression of churches as a part of the establishment and contributed to their downhill ride. In cases churches have been able to put their organisational interests aside and serve the communities in a selfless manner, their credibility has increased. Generally, it is more credible to live what you preach. There are also some churches and movements that have been able to relate to the rise of spirituality in positive manners. For example, retreat, meditation and other Christian spirituality movements (like Taizé) have responded to the felt need. In some few cases, like the Orthodox Church in Finland, even organizational churches have been able to ride the wave of spirituality. (However, in Finland this does not translate into much of church growth but rather to general positive relation to the Orthodox Church with some practices gleaned from there – Orthodoxy Lite.)

Image: Uspenski Cathedral, Helsinki. MV

The rise of spirituality and fall of organised religion is a call for European churches to reconsider their nature. Would the way of the grain of wheat be a greater witness to the Gospel rather than sticking to the historic structures? That might lead to resurrections of Gospel values. The outcome might lead us closer to spirituality and a little further away from the Enlightenment contextual theologies.

May 19, 2021

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When God will ruin a man he first of all bereaves him of his senses (Fiodor Dostoevsky, The Idiot)

Magdalena Dziaczkowska, Lund University & Hebrew University

Israel, where I am writing this post, has just witnessed an unprecedented tragedy at Mount Meron, where at least 45 people were crushed to death and more than 150 people hurt, during a mass gathering to celebrate the holiday of Lag B’Omer at the grave of Rabbi Shimon Ben Yochai. The country’s deadliest civilian disaster unrelated to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict provokes a public debate in Israeli media on the relation of the government to the Haredi communities.

Aerial view of the shrine at Mt. Meron (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Preparations_to_Simeon_bar_Yochai_celebration_in_Meron._May_2016_(cropped).jpg)

The Haredim and the pandemic

During the past year, Ultra-Orthodox (Haredi) Jews became known for violating sanitary laws and ignoring the pandemic. While Israel experienced four strict lockdowns when gatherings were limited to 10 or even 5 people indoors (depending on the lockdown) and the mobility of individuals was significantly restricted (to 1000m from one’s house), the media repeatedly reported cases of mass gatherings among various Haredi communities. Usually, they happened on weddings and funerals and the numbers of participants varied from a few hundreds to a few thousands, the largest one being probably the funeral of Rabbi Meshulam Dov Soloveitchik, who ironically passed away because of Covid-19. Approximately 10,000 of his followers showed up for his funeral, only a fraction wearing a mask, apparently not taking the possibility of a contagion seriously. Aversion towards masks and social distancing added one more reason for non-Haredi Israelis to criticize the already controversial Haredi movement, which is seen as problematic for other reasons such as e.g. exemption from the army service and perceived (although not entirely true) lack of contribution to the Israeli economy and over-dependence on social benefits.

Government’s hesitance to act upon the violation of sanitary regulations

While the above reasons were part of the public discourse for quite a while, the Haredi approach to the pandemic was predictable but yet a very new phenomenon. What can be surprising for an outsider, is that the government did not attempt to enforce stricter adherence to the sanitary laws among the Haredim, even though the rates of contagions were much higher among them than among the general population and they posed a sanitary threat to other citizens. This can be at least partly explained by the political motives of Benjamin Netanyahu (and long tradition of political tug of war between the government and the Ultra-Orthodox leaders), who was trying to win the next election and gain as much Haredi support as possible, knowing that he is in a tight spot. A blind eye was turned on Haredi denial of the pandemic and they were given relative autonomy in comparison to other citizens and residents on whom the rules were enforced firmly and sometimes even ruthlessly, including high fines. Meanwhile, the usual Haredi manifestations protesting for instance the construction of the tramline close to their neighborhoods continued as during the “normal” times, sometimes becoming violent to the extent of wounding the police officers who tried to contain the protests.

Mount Meron – the aftermath of the policy of leniency

So what? One may say. Israel is almost post-pandemic, in spite of the unwillingness of the Haredim to cooperate in containing the contagion. Probably, eventually their insubordination could be forgotten. However, the tragedy on Mount Meron, brings to the spotlight how dangerous turning a blind eye could be. The fact that again the government left far-reaching autonomy to the Haredi communities in organizing the event, without enforcing adherence to safety regulations, proved to be fatal. The Ministry of Health’s officials had warned in advance that the gathering poses a hazard to public safety, potentially leading to mass Covid-19 contagion but their voices were ignored. In fact, any other public gathering, be it a cultural event or a political manifestation, would be limited to 10,000 or maximum 15,000 participants. However, on the night of the tragedy, there were approximately 150,000 people on Mount Meron. The question is who bears responsibility for what happened and how to avoid such tragedies in the future.

The crowd before the stampede happened (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2021_Meron_stampede#/media/File:Police_deployment_in_Meron_at_rabbi_Shimon_Bar_Yochai_Yom_Hillula,_April_2021._A_V.jpg)

Faith and reason

Although there might be many possible answers to the above questions, two aspects seem to be crucial in this riddle. Firstly, one needs to address the eternal tension between faith and reason. All of the questionable behaviors of the Haredim described above result from their approach to their religion, not from the fact that they are morally bad people. They have the best intentions and try to observe the halakha as faithfully as they can. The problem in my eyes is structural in a way – that a socio-religious system is created in which they are forced to isolate themselves from the modern world in order to protect their faith. This makes them prone to manipulation from their spiritual leaders and discourages the usage of a common sense and independent critical thinking. It can be observed that isolationist tendencies in the past have not served Jewish communities well, enhancing the vision of the Jews as “the other”. Finally, confronting and getting to know the other is a way of building peaceful social relations (intergroup contact theory) and has been already applied successfully on the local level in the context of Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Never ending story – politics and religion

Secondly, as in many other cases discussed on this blog, there is the ubiquitous marriage of religion and politics. Israeli political leaders constantly balance between angering the Ultra-Orthodox communities and trying to appease them and win their political support in forming the majority coalition. Many of the Haredim are anti-Zionist but they are at the same time (e.g. the followers of the Shas party) an important part of Israeli political mosaic. During the past year, the attempt to gain their support has blinded Netanyahu to the threats of granting them so much autonomy. The Ultra-Orthodox were often standing above the law because they were not held accountable for ignoring the safety regulations during the pandemic, and unfortunately, finally they paid their price for that in blood. Hopefully, the discussion that started these days on civic obedience in Haredi media – whether they should obey the government regulations for their own sake – will be continued and will lead to featuring the lost factor of reason in the decisions made by Haredi spiritual leaders and their followers.

May 5, 2021

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Who’s afraid of the big bad religion?

Mika Vähäkangas, Lund University, University of the Western Cape, Helsinki University, Stellenbosch University

Islam has become the bogeyman number one for many in the West. Justified fear of violence in the name of Islam intermingles in the minds with racial prejudices and Islamophobia where all Muslims are labelled as dangerous. Islamophobia feeds violence because it marginalises Muslims both within western societies and globally which, in turn, “radicalises” young Muslims. One may wonder whether this “radicalisation” contains a pirate effect. When pirates knew that the enemies would soil their pants for fright at their sight due to their wild reputation, pirates of old, like Blackbeard, consciously constructed a terrible public image. When a marginalised young man of today knows that growing a  beard and shouting religious slogans in Arabic will turn him from the local petty gangster into a public enemy number one, the attraction is obvious.

But why has Islam become such a threat in the minds of the West? Below, I attempt to sketch one partial explanation.

ISIS flag
Contemporary black flag – coincidentally reminding of a popular idea of a pirate flag? “ISIS flag” by Prachatai is licensed with CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Islam as the religious religion

According to Prof Zachary Calo (Hamad Bin Khalifa University college of law, Qatar) in the West, Islam is regarded today as a muscular faith. It is perceived as having strict rules and Muslims really believe in their religion, literally. In comparison, according to him, Christianity is generally regarded as an ethereal religion that provides loose guidelines for life and ethics.

The Islamic revolution in Iran was an early major event contributing to the change in the western perceptions from seeing Islam as relatively marginal and irrelevant to a real threat. This was the first time that the term “Fundamentalism” was used outside of its original Christian context. Ayatollah Khomeini, his supporters and other oppositional forces ousted the ruthless dictator, Shah Reza Pahlavi, who had amassed incredible amounts of riches for himself through oil trade with the West. The Shah was strongly supported by the USA. One dimension of the revolution was hatred against the USA as a neo-colonial power. This hatred was manifested especially in the hostage crisis where the US Teheran embassy personnel were kept as hostages for more than a year 1979-1981. In the West, this action was labelled as religious fanatism whereas from the Iranian perspective, they were trying to pressurise the USA to hand over the former Shah to be tried for his alleged crimes.

Since then, the public image of Islam in the West has increasingly turned more negative. Islam has become the paradigmatic bad religion. It is depicted as irrational, violent, misogynist etc. Information on forms of Islam that are rational, non-violent or affirm women does not change the image but are rather seen as interesting exceptions. The “real” Islam appears as the “extremist” – and representatives of groups labelled as such are all too happy to confirm to the outsiders that just their position is the normative one. In this manner, western prejudices against radical Islam make it the primary representative of that religion.

One may wonder whether the fear of Islam is, at least in part, basically fear of religion in general. Prof. Calo seems to point to that direction when suggesting that the relative acceptance of Christianity is due to its image as a kind of “religion light”.

Irrational religion vs. Enlightenment rationality

Perhaps one of the roots of Islamophobia can be found in the Enlightenment mentality. The Enlightenment, in line with its name, builds on the myth of medieval religiously oriented darkness followed by the rational scientific Enlightenment. In much of Enlightenment thinking, religion, or at least what is seen as irrational religion, functions as the other against which one can project the rational self.

In the Nordic region, the juxtaposition of Enlightenment and religion was not as sharp as e.g. in France but in many parishes, Enlightenment-minded Lutheran priests propagated for the new vision. Revival movements, often led or at least launched by lay persons, functioned as the opposite ideological pole in the Nordic countries but also elsewhere. For the Enlightenment rational priests and educated laypersons, revivalist emotional and mystical religion was backward.

In the 20th century, the newly introduced radically conservative forms of Protestantism, Fundamentalism and Pentecostalism, partly inherited the role of the irrational other. Anthropologist Susan Harding has argued  in her seminal essay “Representing Fundamentalism” that in the eyes of the outsiders, the Fundamentalists appear as a “repugnant cultural other” – even for the anthropologists who were otherwise proud of being radically open towards all kinds of cultures.

These forms of Protestantism portray similar characteristics of muscular religion as Islam does. Religious texts are taken at face value, more or less literally. Religious regulation of life is superior to secular. All these forms of religion can also be seen as reactions against Enlightenment arid rationalism that reduces religion’s role and nature.

Pentecostal service in Zambia. Interestingly, in many African countries Pentecostal churches are regarded as progressive and contributing to development. Image: MV

Also, no matter if Fundamentalists and Muslims do their best to argue rationally for their positions, these attempts are regarded as irrational because religious argumentation is irrational by default. The radical forms of Protestantism are depicted as radically other by the Enlightenment-minded public. This serves, to an extent, the radical Protestant agendas. Fundamentalist Christians see the secular societies as lost in direction, and themselves as the proper alternative. Pentecostals, in turn, with their emphasis on conversion, often maintain that in conversion, the whole life is completely changed. Thus, the outsiders’ exotic views on Pentecostalism are more in line with Pentecostal self-image than lived reality.

Domesticated religion as the ideal

These forms of Protestantism were portrayed as dangerous to the foundations of the free and civilised society. This danger was not seen in the alliance between conservative Christians and trigger-happy extreme rightists, to begin with, but rather in the sphere of values and competing truths. The danger was not in threat of violence but in the muscularity of religion. The US public has woken up to the dangers of radicalised Christianism – combination of violent political rightist activism and militant religiosity – only recently. Europe has been saved from that phenomenon, thus far.

Summing up, Enlightenment seems to need a religious other against which to define itself. This other needs to be such that it does not accept Enlightenment primacy in defining the truth and values. Today, primarily Islam plays the role of the big bad religion. For Enlightenment mentality, domesticated religion is good religion. It is entirely a different topic whether this domestication of religion is good or bad.

April 21, 2021

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Why does a priest sin? Theological anthropology in TV series

Mika Vähäkangas, Lund University, University of the Western Cape, Helsinki University, Stellenbosch University

Reformation-time theological struggles may feel distant and irrelevant in the world of today. However, some of the basic issues debated then still define many cultures even today. Let me demonstrate that through portraying the image of the sinner priests in two TV series, the Italian Miracle (Il miracolo) and the Danish Ride upon the Storm (Herrens veje, more literally translated as “the Lord’s ways”).

Saints and sinners on TV – SPOILER ALERT

The starting point of the Miracle is a statue of the Virgin who begins to shed tears of blood without any pause. One of the main characters is a Catholic Italian priest, Padre Marcello, a well-known philanthropist, and a deep theological thinker with a liberal twist. This former missionary to South Sudan (who has been helping the “poor Africans” in line of a thoroughly colonial imaginary) has, however, his dark side: gambling dependency, loose and violent sexual behaviour, and substance abuse. In the long run we get to know that he has an incurable disease for which he takes medicine that changes his character and behaviour. So, deep down­­, behind the veil of the disease and substance abuse, he is a proper saint.

Image: MV

Ride upon the Storm revolves around the Lutheran priest family of the Kroghs. The father, Johannes, is a vicar with wonderful talent of preaching, unwavering honesty, and a strong will to do the right thing. However, also he has his dark side: he is a recovering alcoholic, who lapses from time to time and disappears to his drinking bouts involving infidelity towards his wife. He is a tragic personality willing to do good without being able to do so. He portrays both irate dogmatism and mercifulness combined with warm love for the neighbour. One of his sons is soft and kind, and becomes a priest, too. This saintly young man goes to Iraq to serve as an army chaplain. There, when surrounded by the enemy with his soldier compatriots, the situation gets very serious and he ends up blessing their weapons (a great mistake in the not so warlike Danish church) and eventually grabbing one, killing a civilian. His guilt drives him crazy. The other brother is the trickster figure of the story, expelled from his studies in economy due to plagiarism. He finds himself through Buddhist spirituality in the Himalayas and starts a successful spirituality business in Denmark. Eventually, he undergoes a spiritual transformation and becomes a Lutheran priest, too. Thus, all three priests are broken and imperfect personalities. Despite this, or perhaps because of this, they are all depicted as servants of the church able to convey a message of God’s love.

Grace and the human condition

We usually perceive that the theological root cause for the Lutheran reformation is the question of salvation – that one is saved by grace alone. However, one could maintain that the driving force behind this extreme emphasis on grace is Luther’s pessimistic anthropology. A human being is always a sinner, and nothing changes that. Even the saintliest person is not really good in himself but all the sanctity in that person is alien righteousness – Christ working and being in the believer. Thus, Christian life is a constant uphill struggle, and never getting to the top of the mountain during this life. Church is a sanatory of incurably ill people. One sins and repents, falls, and stands up again, just like the priests in the Krogh family.

Catholic theology emphasises grace as well. However, the depravity of humanity is not painted in quite as sombre colours as in the Lutheran image of the human condition. Perhaps the most central difference, however, is how grace is perceived to function in the believer. The concept of habitual grace makes a great difference. A believer who lives a holy life exercises holiness, and the more holy you live, the holier you become. This is not a matter of a moral Münchhausen lifting himself up from the marsh of sin, but that God grants grace that helps the believer to persist in the process of sanctification.

A Bichard lithographs Baron van Munchhausen 1879 -1967- ill Q by janwillemsen is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Theological anthropologies are reflected in societies

While there is a clear difference in these ways of viewing the human condition, they both reflect deep psychological insights. It is no coincidence that the monastic wear is called habit – clothing in such a manner is a constant reminder of the need to struggle to stay on the way of sanctification. Humans are creatures of habit. What we do is what we become. At the same time, the painful and recurring experience of falling short of one’s ideals is all too familiar. For me, the Danish raw and frustrating Jacob’s wrestle with human weakness appears as more realistic but it may depend on my background and lack of saintly character.

What is clear, however, is that these theological differences between Catholicism and Lutheranism colour many European cultures and even the ways in which the societies are designed. In traditionally Lutheran countries, there tends to be less trust in individual abilities and the natural role of the kin and the nearby community and a stronger reliance on state structures and systems than in the Catholic societies. From a Catholic perspective, such approach appears as limiting human freedom and potential. Perhaps Carl Schmitt was correct in his view that European politics is just a continuum of theology.

April 7, 2021

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COVID – When Churches Become the Civil Society

Mika Vähäkangas, Lund University, University of the Western Cape, Helsinki University, Stellenbosch University

One of the world’s staunchest COVID-denialists, Tanzanian president John Pombe Magufuli, died of COVID – so the rumours say – on the 17th of March 2021. According to him, Tanzania was a COVID-free country as of June 2020, after three days of prayer. Instead of vaccines and masks, he suggested that COVID could be beaten by going to the church and inhaling herbal fumes.

As a politician, he was undeniably a populist, of the same ilk as Donald Trump or Jair Bolsonaro, two other former COVID-patients with questionable track records in fighting the pandemic. He provided the people with what they wanted: war against corruption, infrastructure projects completed on time and entertaining political show.

Swearing in of President of Tanzania John Magufuli | Dar es Salaam, 5 November 2015
Swearing in of President Magufuli in Dar es Salaam in 2015. Image: Paul Kagame, Creative Commons.

COVID denialism to the very end

There was, however, also a dark side to his presidency. He was namely able to carry out such authoritarian measures that his American counterpart only dreamed of. Political opposition was harassed and persecuted, and there occurred several uncanny deaths of people not pleasing the government. The media was muffled as was the society in general. Those warning of COVID were silenced, and those “spreading rumours” of the president’s ill health were jailed. Just hours before his death, his government claimed that the president was fine and working hard. The Tanzanian citizens’ rights have been considerably narrowed down.

The medical experts have done their best to remedy the situation, but with little success. President Magufuli sacked the health minister, Faustine Ndugulile, last year for not following his denialist policies. Medical professionals have been trying to caution the nation, but they have been silenced. Opposition politicians in the country and in forced exile have also raised the alarm. Meanwhile, the grim reaper has toured the nation, but there are only indications of how bad the situation is because the government has programmatically avoided creating statistics about the issue. There is also a law prohibiting the use of any statistics not sanctioned by the government.

Churches as the civil society

In such a situation, one would expect that the civil society – citizens who have no professional, commercial or party-political reasons to criticise the government COVID policies – would stand up and challenge the president. However, the risks involved for the citizens in freely expressing their concern are such that the voice has remained feeble – except in one direction.

The Catholic and Lutheran churches, the two largest denominations of the country, have again taken the leading role in protecting the civil rights – this time, the right to live. The Catholic archbishop Gervais Nyaisonga and the Lutheran presiding bishop Fredrick Shoo issued letters to their faithful on the very same day, the 26th of January 2021, prompting the Christians to take precautionary measures against the spread of COVID. While such letters could be counted as politically innocent admonitions in a free democracy, in Magufuli’s Tanzania, they clearly challenged the powers that be.

This was not the first time that the Tanzanian churches have stood up against the government and its mismanagement. While either apolitical or loyal to the young nation’s leadership, with Julius Nyerere at helm, after his long leadership, the situation changed. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in Tanzania’s (ELCT) Bagamoyo statement in 1994 against the corruption and mismanagement of the government under the president Ali Hassan Mwinyi can be considered a watershed. After that, the governments have not been able to count on churches’ acquiescence no matter what they do. The situation between president Magufuli and the ELCT got tense already earlier when ELCT bishops wrote an open letter criticising the president for the narrowing down of the civil rights. By doing so, they took a considerable personal risk.

Why just churches in this role?

Why is it so that when the situation gets difficult in Tanzania, it is the churches that speak up? Why are the other actors of the civil society not willing or able to take that risk? In an increasingly authoritarian country, like Tanzania, the dangers related to challenging the government are real. You may lose your job, be jailed, tortured, and even killed. For an ordinary citizen, lifting up one’s voice may lead one to be eliminated even before too many people have heard you. Therefore, the one speaking up needs to have an existing platform in order that the protest may be meaningful in any way. Additionally, if you also want to survive after expressing your opinion, you need to have leverage over against the government.

Leaders of large churches have exactly these two: platform and leverage. They have a multi-million audience in their churches and in addition, they are public figures followed also in the wider society. Additionally, if the government turns nasty against a church leader, there is a risk that the church members stand up for him. Men of cloth are also respected in the society in general and touching them may be a red line that the government does not want to cross. Especially, when the protest is concerted and only covertly against the government, as was the case with the January letters of the Catholic and Lutheran leaders, it is very difficult for the government to take action against them. Additionally, the churches which have emanated from western missionary enterprise, belong to global church families. Were they targeted, international attention would be certain. This is yet another factor prompting the government to think twice.

Considering the above, it is little wonder why religious communities, and their leaders are the de facto civil society in many countries with limited civil rights. Large following of believers in a country where other societal actors have been muffled brings you a huge political responsibility, no matter if you want it or not. Even silence in front of tyranny is political action.

March 24, 2021

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Did the Catholic doctrine on the Jews change during the Second Vatican Council?

Magdalena Dziaczkowska, Lund University & Hebrew University

When Jules Isaac published his famous book L’Enseignement de Mépris (its English translation The Teaching of Contempt: Christian Roots of Anti-Semitism came out in 1964), he argued that the majority of Christians are antisemites and that the gospels throughout the ages served as “a testimony weighed against the Jews.” [ibidem, 132] He was not the only person concerned with antisemitic tropes present in the Catholic tradition, however he played a particular role in bringing this issue to the attention of the pope John XXIII on the eve of the council.

Proceedings of the Second Vatican Council. Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Vatican_2a.jpg

Pope John commended the Jewish question to the Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity (hereafter SPCU), a newly established body that was one of the preparatory commissions for the Council. The SPCU, under presidency of  Cardinal Augustin Bea, a German biblical scholar, prepared and presented to the Council documents on ecumenism (Unitatis redintegratio), Nostra aetatea declaration that was supposed to concern only Jews but was widened to include all non-Christian religions , on religious liberty (Dignitatis humanae) and, together with the doctrinal commission, the dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation (Dei verbum).

Nowadays, Nostra aetate is univocally regarded as a milestone in the relation of the Church towards Judaism and the Jews, even if it was preceded by other documents on Christian-Jewish relations such as The Ten Points of Seelisberg (1948), and mentions in papal encyclical (Ecclesiam suam, Pacem in terries) that could be seen as foreshadowing of the ideas developed in Nostra aetate. The pastoral praxis proved that this document paved way for all kind of interreligious initiatives, starting from academic discussions to cooperation on addressing social issues. Since 1965, when the declaration was promulgated, a lot has changed in how Catholics and other Christians relate to Jews and Judaism. Recognition of the antisemitic past, Holocaust remembrance, and references to Jewish Biblical exegesis are some of facets of this new approach. However, was the declaration itself revolutionary?

Pope Paul VI during the Second Vatican Council. Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Second_Vatican_Council_by_Lothar_Wolleh_001.jpg

Gavin D’Costa argues that the doctrinal content of Nostra aetate was not as discontinuous to previous Church’s teachings as many see it [ Gavin D’Costa, Vatican II : Catholic Doctrines on Jews and Muslims, Oxford University Press, 2016]. He claims that in Nostra aetate, the Council promulgated three main points regarding the Jews, all of them in continuity with previous teachings, or rather with no discontinuity to them (not contradicting previous doctrine but developing it). Firstly, that “not all Jews at the time of Jesus, nor Jews since that time, including contemporary Jews, can be held collectively guilty of killing Jesus Christ” [ ibidem, 158). He sees it as a clarification of what the deposit of faith already included: that some Jews were involved in the death of Christ. However, there was no formal treatment of this issue by any pope or Council. At the same time, it is worth remembering that well-established theological traditions held Jews responsible for the death of Jesus.

Secondly, based on Romans 11, the Council declared that God’s promises are irrevocable and He remains faithful to his covenant with Israel. This has not been taught before. Nonetheless D’Costa sees the novelty as “neither discontinuous nor continuous with formal teachings,” meaning a new interpretational line with no contradiction to existing doctrine. This point would be further developed by many theologians in the direction of two equally valid covenants, which D’Costa opposes on the grounds of two other issues: Jewish fidelity to this covenant and the status of the covenant made with the Church, seeing Judaism as praeparatio evangelica.

Thirdly, while stating the faithfulness of God to his promises, the Church did not address explicitly the mission to the Jews. However, in D’Costa’s understanding what was implicitly taught about the need of mission to all non-Christians, should be applied to Jews as well. This point remains a topic of a heated theological debate with scholars such as Mary C. Boys, for example, holding opposite interpretation, especially in the light of later Vatican’s documents such as The Gifts and the Calling of God Are Irrevocable. The latter calls for a particular approach to the mission to the Jews:

40. It is easy to understand that the so–called ‘mission to the Jews’ is a very delicate and sensitive matter for Jews because, in their eyes, it involves the very existence of the Jewish people. This question also proves to be awkward for Christians, because for them the universal salvific significance of Jesus Christ and consequently the universal mission of the Church are of fundamental importance. The Church is therefore obliged to view evangelisation to Jews, who believe in the one God, in a different manner from that to people of other religions and world views. In concrete terms this means that the Catholic Church neither conducts nor supports any specific institutional mission work directed towards Jews. While there is a principled rejection of an institutional Jewish mission, Christians are nonetheless called to bear witness to their faith in Jesus Christ also to Jews, although they should do so in a humble and sensitive manner, acknowledging that Jews are bearers of God’s Word, and particularly in view of the great tragedy of the Shoah. (bold mine)

While Nostra aetate became a symbol and an expression of theological developments that changed completely the climate of Jewish-Catholic relations, paving way also for more daring theological statements such as the above, it gave way also to some theological developments that D’Costa assesses as false. By that, he means seeing the conciliar documents as a) perceiving Judaism as a valid means of salvation, b) treating the covenant with Jewish people as still valid and c) considering no mission to the Jews as legitimate. Even though it might be a matter of discussion, Nostra aetate still can be viewed as a milestone because of its trailblazing status in the history of the Church.

March 11, 2021

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The Prophetic Role of the Churches

Mika Vähäkangas, Lund University, University of the Western Cape, Helsinki University, Stellenbosch University

In some theological circles, most notably liberation or contextual theological and the ecumenical movement there is a considerable amount of talk about the prophetic role of the churches. In these discourses, prophetic role of the churches and Christians usually means that of announcing the “truth to power”, or proclaiming a Gospel-based critical message towards the mighty of this world acting in a manner that violates the rights of the marginalised. These marginalised may be humans or belong to the rest of the creation. Yet, it is rather seldom that a church assumes an actual prophetic role.

WCC CMWE conference in Arusha, Tanzania 2018. Image: MV.

Why are churches seldom prophetic?

First of all, one easily grants the name prophetic for any progressive social or political activism that pleases the observer. However, not all socially or politically engaging theology or ecclesiastic action can be counted as prophetic. For example, today general religiously motivated exhortations to care for the environment to reduce climate change are not very prophetic, no matter how needed they might be. When viewed through the Hebrew Bible, prophetic proclamation usually takes place in the margins, happens at a considerable personal cost or risk, and goes against the grain – either popular opinion or the powers that be.

How to relate to power has been a tricky question for churches for two millennia. Benefits of jumping in the bandwagon of powers that be have often been great – avoiding persecution or other social and even economic gains. Each church is also an integral part of the community where it is located, and Christians are prone to share many of the values of the surrounding society. Many churches adjust their positions according to what they count will increase (or slow down the decrease) of their membership. Additionally, Christians often genuinely believe in the state propaganda or general opinion – Christian faith does not automatically provide anyone a moral high ground or special analytical abilities from where to observe the mundane politics as if from outside.

Churches in authoritarian societies

In many cases, a church would be in the position of challenging the powers but instead of doing that, rather plays happily in the oppressive symphony orchestra. Thus, the leadership of the Orthodox Church in Belarus stands by side of Lukashenko’s regime even if the church members are facing oppression in the streets when demanding free and fair elections. Many Belarussian churches in the diaspora have condemned Lukashenko. Putin’s Russia is turning increasingly oppressive towards its citizens, with politically motivated assassinations (often with poison), arbitrary arrests, skewed court cases (as judged by the European Court of Human Rights), state (supported) media attacks on dissidents, intimidation, and imprisonment. Those actions await Russians who dare to challenge the economic or political power of Putin and his cronies, or the reinterpretation of Russian history that is being forced upon the people. A part of that is rehabilitation of Josif Stalin, one of the most ruthless dictators of human history, and a fierce persecutor of Christians. What does the Orthodox Moscow Patriarchate do? It supports the regime when the church members’ human rights are abused, and the memory of her martyrs is mocked by lifting Uncle Joe back to the pedestal.

However, when in minority and in a precarious situation, the church’s decision to take a prophetic stance could lead from a situation of oppression to persecution. Thus, it would be unrealistic to expect that for example Chinese churches would stand up against Xi’s regimes abysmal human rights record – from Uighur concentration camps via Tibet to crushing the Hong Kong calls for democracy. Christian churches are in minority, and already now in a tight spot. Any organization is bound to struggle for its survival. Therefore, it is more likely that individuals act as prophets rather than churches.

Churches in freedom of speech contexts

How about the ecumenical movement that sounds often so prophetic renouncing all kinds of evils all around the world? The World Council of Churches’ silence on Belarus, Russia and China is both remarkable and understandable. For the WCC to raise its voice, a member church in the country would need to take up the matter. At least in some cases, the risk of (increased) oppression and even persecution may make this line of action prudent. That policy is golden for the oppressive regimes – do not meddle with the others’ internal affairs. The churches in Belarus and Russia do not want, and the ones in China cannot introduce their governments’ human rights abuses in the agenda. Both Belarus and Russia belong to the Moscow Patriarchate which, in turn, represents the lion’s share of the Orthodox in the ecumenical community. Would the WCC get a temporary mental disorder and offend the mighty Patriarchate, the latter’s exit would turn the WCC primarily into a club of Protestant churches.

Even in situations where democracy is in danger but not yet perished – like the USA during the last four years – truly prophetic action was hard to spot. The nation was divided, and so were the churches – according to their market share. Churches targeting towards market segments opposing Trump were happily proclaiming their anti-Trump Gospel. That does not count as prophetic, it is politics. Churches in the Trump-market segment predominantly went along with their customers, possibly uttering a few words against Trump’s obscene language. However, they were basically approving the anti-democratic, xenophobic, and toxic turn in the history of the nation. Evangelicals and other conservative Christians would have been called to prophetic proclamation, even at the cost of losing dollars in the Sunday collect, but such voices were far and few. Even in the USA, power, prestige, and politics reigned over sincere search for the Gospel values.

Many churches of Western Europe avoid drastic positions regarding climate change and its root cause – almost unrestricted global capitalism. Securing popularity and the churches’ societal position dampens the voice. The same dynamics is at play regarding a range of issues, with variations between churches in different countries. Whenever the public opinion begins to turn, these churches follow.

There will always be prophets but instead of churches, they are individuals making moral choices at a great personal risk.

February 24, 2021

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They is God

Magdalena Dziaczkowska, Lund University & Hebrew University; Mika Vähäkangas, Lund University, University of the Western Cape, Helsinki & Stellenbosch Universities

In Christian theology, God has traditionally been referred to as “he”. We believe that the pronoun we use matters because of its power to shape our images of the divine. God-talk conditions our understanding of God and therefore we should search for the possibly least misleading way. “He” has biblical grounding and has sometimes been argued for with the gender of God incarnate, Jesus of Nazareth. Despite the strong tradition behind this solution, it is not without problems.

It goes without saying that God does not have sex (except as incarnated) because sex requires corporeality. However, does God have gender? Arguably, theologies that refer to God as “he” without problematising, subconsciously assign gender to God. That is problematic in the sense that then theology turns the point of reference upside down: theologians construct a god that is created in the image of man instead of theologians being content seeing themselves as images of God. Even in languages with gender neutral pronouns, one often places God in a social position that is gendered, most notably “Father”, following the biblical example. However, this Father gives birth to the Son, an activity traditionally reserved for the women. Additionally, there are also female biblical images of God, albeit fewer than male ones, like hen in Mt 23:37/ Lk 13:34.

One can also decide to refer to God as “she”. In that case, the point may be that one wants to signal the problematic nature of Christian traditions referring to God as “he” and make the reader or hearer pay attention to the problematic nature of referring to God with gender-specific terminology. Another motivation behind such decision is that one wants to refer to God taking sides with the oppressed by choosing the pronoun of the underprivileged gender. This motive comes close to Black theology referring to God’s blackness or liberation theological emphasis on God’s preferential option for the poor. However, by assigning to God a female pronoun, the theologian again constructs a god that fits her/his agenda and in the end is the image of his/her intellectual landscape. Moreover, this decision swims against the current of tradition and seemingly assigns God with gender – not a pleasant theological position.

Very many human languages do not have gender-segregated pronouns the way Indo-European languages do. That saves God-talk from discussion about pronouns. In such languages, detectives have no problem choosing a pronoun for the unknown murderer, or one referring to a person with an unfamiliar first name, or deciding which pronoun to use for a person not identifying with any of the two dominant genders. Therefore, in Swedish, one has introduced the gender-neutral pronoun “hen” that covers both “hon” (she) and “han” (he). “Hen” is actually a loan from non-Indo-European Finnish that lacks gender-segregated pronouns. In Swedish, going over to “hen” would therefore appear natural. However, all the above proposals miss the most central quality of God seen from a Christian perspective.

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/a/a2/Perugia_-_Trinit%C3%A0_-_Foto_G._Dall%27Orto_-_5_ago_2006.jpg
Allegory of the Holy Trinity, painted as three faces fused in one, in a medieval fresco in Perugia. Image: Giovanni Dall’Orto.

The nature of God expressed during the first ecumenical councils highlights double nature of the divine: God is one but in three persons. Therefore, using gendered pronouns referring to God is misleading in a twofold way: firstly, it suggests God’s gender, and secondly it takes away the attention from two main points  that Christians have traditionally ascribed to God: unity and relationality.

In English, the dominant proposal to replace “he” and “she” is not to take a loan from another language (like the Swedish “hen”) but instead to apply “they.” It highlights gender inapplicability and makes sense in light of the relational nature of the Trinity. Considering trinitarian theology, implying “they are one” by the very nature of the pronoun used appears as brilliant. However, one can imagine resulting charges of polytheism and lack of understanding the unity of God, especially in the context of the interfaith dialogue. Only when “they are” referring to singular has become as commonplace as “you are” – the latter has replaced the singular proper “thou art” – the polytheistic implication disappears. However, when that happens, one also loses the trinitarian reference. No one would think that a theologian using “you are” today in relation to God necessarily implies the Trinity.

Hence, one could deal with this tension between God’s unity and trinity by using the verb in singular: they is God. This statement, at first glance awkward, expresses the duality of God’s nature and at the same time points to the limitations of human language in accessing the mystery of the Trinity. Human words and grammar simply cannot express this mystery. Therefore, the breach of grammar makes this option appear as the least misleading of those discussed above.

February 10, 2021

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